What Makes a Person a Journalist or Science Writer?

Although I blog regularly (TalkingNutrition.dsm.com) and think about posting to this blog almost daily, it has been a long time….So, today’s post is an effort to highlight some recent thoughts on journalism, embargoes, and science writing.

Embargoes involve agreements by journalists to honor confidentiality terms and timelines set out by media organizations for the privilege of gaining advance access to research studies. In “Science reporters play the access game too: What embargoes have to do with Greenwald, Snowden and Assange” Ivan Oransky from Reuters Health and Embargo Watch writes:

The embargo system is still, however, a case of journalists agreeing to let powerful institutions dictate terms of coverage in exchange for early access. Last week, Carl Zimmer called the embargo system “cozy dysfunctionality.” I spend a lot of time on Embargo Watch criticizing those who embargo information, but embargoes would have no power if journalists didn’t agree to or even insist on them, no matter what the reason — more time to report, leveling the playing field, etc.

EurekAlert! is an online, global news service operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which allows access to reporters and freelancers who are registered for its embargoed section. So now that embargoes have been defined, what defines a journalist?

Without question in the US, someone who is employed and will receive a W-2 slip from a media entity such as Reuters, New York Times, or Huffington Post is a journalist. Their employer can vouch for their credentials, the employer (or the journalist) can agree to honor embargoes, and presto the employer (or journalist) has advance access to research papers.

What if you are a science writer and do not have such an employer? As covered in ‘So who gets access to embargoed studies, anyway?”, it is not so easy for free-lancers and bloggers. Ask Grrlscientist or read her scienceblogs post “Goddam, But I Hate Embargoes”. Grrlscientist was successful in convincing EurekeAlert! that she could keep her word. But her frustration is palpable and not isolated. As the number of journalists employed by bona fide media entities decline, I have to ask, how am I different than other free-lancer science writers and bloggers with privileged access to embargoed materials? Is it because I am employed by a manufacturing company not a media conglomerate?

I believe Josh Stearns is correct when he writes in A New Call to Protect Acts of Journalism,

Around the country people are committing acts of journalism that are serving their communities, influencing national debates and changing the face of journalism.

I am a science writer. One who has published over 75 80 peer-reviewed papers and co-authored hundreds of abstracts. I am a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), a professional organization for science writers and practitioners.

I agree with Josh Stearns’ who writes in Acts of Journalism: Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age:  

In today’s climate, it makes no sense for press freedom protections to apply only to a narrow class of professonals. Everyday Americans are central to the future of journalism as news consumers, distributors and creators. We need to push for policies that protect these new participants. It’s not enough to protect traditional journalists; we must protect all acts of journalism.

I am a scientist who participates in science and writes about science. For various reasons, my role does not neatly fit neatly into the registration categories for EurekAlerts: 1) staff reporter, editor or producer specializing in science, medicine or technology, 2) freelance writer, editor, or producer who regularly covers science, medicine or technology, or 3) public information officer for a university, research institution, scientific organization, or corporation.

While my access to embargoed information may be limited, my love and interest in gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of ‘science’ news information that concerns local, national or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public (see H.R.1962 – Freedom Flow of Information Act of 2013) will continue. Whether I am a journalist or not, I am passionate about sharing science.

About Michael McBurney

Personal Blog | Nutrition scientist with broad interests, including social media and the impact of open access journals on science publishing | Self-employed freelancer
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